Interview with Ivan Vejvoda 10 September 2020

A week after Donald Trump announced a diplomatic breakthrough – this time in the Balkans – Visegrad Insight spoke with Ivan Vejvoda, Permanent Fellow in the Institute of Human Sciences in Vienna. Wojciech Przybylski asked him how to read recent developments from the perspective of both the EU and the US.

Ivan Vejvoda was previously the Executive Director of GMF’s Balkan Trust for Democracy, a project dedicated to strengthening democratic institutions in South-Eastern Europe, and served a senior advisor on foreign policy and European integration to Serbian Prime Ministers Zoran Đinđić and Zoran Živković.

On 4 September in Washington Serbia and Kosovo signed agreements with the USA on the future of their mutual economic relationship. How significant is this Serbia-Kosovo deal for the future?

Equally important to the Washington meeting was the Brussels meeting that took place two or three days later on 7 September between representatives from Belgrade and Pristina as well as Miroslav Lajčák, the special EU representative for the dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo. Both sides realised that it is important to move forward and to resolve the status of Kosovo. Europe does not want to see a situation similar to the tensions like between India and Pakistan on the Kashmir issue, which is unresolved for the past 70 years or the case of Cyprus that has been unresolved for 45 years. The solution for Kosovo can be found in conjunction with efforts of the European Union and the United States. The European Union clearly takes the lead. Given that this is part of Europe’s geography and history and culture. This was decided by a United Nations decision. But it cannot happen without the support and help of the United States.

Now, in this particular situation of a Trump administration that is facing elections in about two months’ time. There has been a renewed effort in a typical American fast-lane process, trying to speed up things and do them quickly. They convened the meeting in Washington to bring the President of Serbia, Aleksandar Vučić and the Prime Minister of Kosovo, Avdullah Hoti, to sign an agreement that would move things forward. The perception was somewhat confusing for those of us who are looking from the side to the documents that were signed between Serbia and the US and then Kosovo and the US and President Trump.

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Let’s unpack the agreements a bit. Let me ask you this, starting from the United States’ perspective – apart from obvious push ahead of the presidential election, what has been accomplished in Washington? And what about the perspectives of Kosovo and Serbia?

The American Development Agency decided to open an office in Belgrade to spur investments and to spur infrastructure connections, such as a highway between Serbia and Kosovo and then a railroad that would link Serbia to the Albanian Port of Durrës. In fact, these were developments have been already provisioned by the Berlin Process that was initiated by German Chancellor Angela Merkel in 2015. Unfortunately, Europe is often slow to make these projects materialise. I would have liked to see the highway between the Serbian city of Niš and the capital of Kosovo (Pristina) already up and running. It has been five years and only now we see the beginning of construction.

There were some ‘strange elements’ in the Washington meeting in that both Belgrade and Pristina agreed to open their embassies in Israel in Jerusalem (moving from Tel Aviv for Serbia), which is unusual given that only the United States and Guatemala have recognised Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

By the same token, Israel has accepted to recognise the existence of Kosovo as an independent state, and it was sold in Washington as another Muslim state that has recognised the independence of Israel and Serbia has agreed to move its trade office to Jerusalem and by July 2021, to open an embassy in Jerusalem.

The big question that has been debated over the past few days since the signing in the Oval Office of these documents, is whether this is the non-binding or binding agreement. International legal experts, especially in Serbia, have said that it is a non-binding agreement. Thus there is a lot of question about what of these things, especially the move of the embassy to Jerusalem will be fulfilled. (Update: on 9 September Serbia threatened not to open its embassy in Jerusalem if Israel recognises Kosovo – this was announced just after the conduct of the interview)

A New Approach

There is also a mention of a 5G network, which is an element of American policy to insulate Europe from Chinese influence.

Indeed, it’s important to unpack the many dimensions of the events that occurred. Apart from the 5G issue, there was also mention of the diversification of energy sources. Moreover, Serbia and Kosovo commit themselves to defend and support LGBT rights across the world. As you mentioned earlier, there is a PR element in this before the American election. One that sort of follows the deal between Israel and the United Arab Emirates. Some people have tried to link both. And obviously, Richard Grenell, who was appointed by President Trump to be the special envoy for the dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina, is someone who is seeking to heighten his presence in American political life.

However, the US has always been present in the Western Balkans. No need to recall the history of the 1990s. The US is present and has been at all stages of negotiations between Serbia and Kosovo, for example, Philip T. Reeker as Deputy Assistant Secretary when Catherine Ashton brokered a deal in 2013 and how is now Assistant Secretary at the State Department. Also, a meeting in Brussels on Monday, just a few days after the Washington signing ceremony, has been attended by a State Department representative, Matthew Palmer, who is now the Deputy Assistant Secretary responsible among others for the Western Balkans. On the other hand, many commentators noticed that there was no State Department official present in the Oval Office during the signing ceremony in Washington. But as I said from the beginning, a deal which we all hope could come at some moment cannot happen without the EU in the lead and the US in a supporting role.

To your question, what is in it for Serbia? What is in it for Kosovo? Well, for Kosovo, simply the presence in the Oval Office means further recognition of its status as an independent state and to be seen as an equal. This is denied by Serbia, of course, given the United Nations Security Council resolution 1244, which states that Kosovo is still part of Serbia.

And for Serbia, it is at a moment when there are a lot of questions being asked about its ties with Russia and with China, possibly also with Turkey. This definitely shows the importance of its anchoring in the Western political sphere, principally with the European Union, because it is one of the countries that is an official candidate to becoming a member. But then also the importance of the link with the United States. And the financial and economic aspect, which is very important. This is probably the most concrete one.

Do you believe that the signing of these agreements will help Miroslav Lajčák, the European Union special representative for the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue and the Western Balkans, in his mission?

In principle, this is a contribution that paves the road to finding a solution. But then there is kind of subplots to this. The main criticism voiced was the one about the move of the embassy to Jerusalem; it met with a lot of scepticism from diplomats and experts because of a possible contradiction with the United Nations Security Council resolution 478 from 1980. Since Serbia is a candidate country and Kosovo wants to become one, this is at odds with the EU’s foreign policy. So there that is the negative side. And Europeans have been very clear that they are not happy with it.

Do Not Rush Enlargement

One other country that clearly demonstrated its irritation is Russia: it issued a jibe at President Vučić. Serbia has been seen as so far as a very closely or closely following the trail set up by Russia.

This Facebook post by a Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman did create a vicious, critical reaction in Belgrade by high-level officials and by President Vučić himself. This was deemed to be something totally outrageous in diplomatic terms, especially for a spokesperson, official spokesperson of the foreign ministry.

And many commentators here said that this is a clear sign of a turning away from Russia and the turning towards Washington now. You know, one shouldn’t jump too quickly to a conclusion, but clearly one must restate that the strategic orientation of Serbia towards EU membership and its close relations now with the US has been seen critically in Russia and as we know overall.

Over the years it has been clear that Russia is trying to undermine the European Union, the unity of the European Union on a number of issues, and also trying to slow down and impede the Euro-Atlantic integration of the Western Balkans. Just remember how critical they were of Montenegro joining NATO and of the deal that North Macedonia and Greece achieved to find peace and the solution to their long-lasting conflict and, of course, to the acceptance of North Macedonia into NATO. So this is part of a general Russian attempt to undermine the Euro-Atlantic alliance and to undermine a Western Balkans more quickly moving towards European Union membership. And many commentators say that maybe it is in Russia’s interest to have a status quo on the Serbia-Kosovo issue.

Looking at Western Balkans overall, we have seen some hurdles in the process of opening doors to future membership, also from within the European Union. There are signals of withholding the process of accession and even reshaping the whole process. Is Serbia concerned about such signals coming preliminarily from France? President Emmanuel Macron has said that he prefers to sort out internal EU problems before even opening doors to any future enlargement.

Indeed, that is a very important issue that you raise. The fact is that the European Union, especially through the voice of French President Macron, impeded the move of North Macedonia and Albania. This was seen as a supremely negative sign in the whole region because it was a negation of a promise made a long time ago, in 2003 at the Thessaloniki Summit of the European Union, when the road to EU membership for the Western Balkans was open. Of course, provided they met all the necessary conditions to become members. I must also state that the European Union has never reneged on that in all official statements from all the commission and council presidents over the years. And it is also repeated by current Council President Charles Michel. The promise and commit to further enlargement exists. There was a Zagreb summit of the European Union in May 2020, which reiterated those commitments.

Interestingly, however, the word enlargement was not used in the final declaration. Many seized upon that moment to come back to the famous topic of the cold fatigue of enlargement, because the European Union (as Macron said), wants to deepen before it widens again. This has changed now because we know that in June, there was a decision to open the doors for North Macedonia and Albania. I should also remind you there was a joint Franco-German summit where all the leaders of the Western Balkans were convened last autumn. There was also a repeat Franco-German summit on the issue of Serbia and Kosovo, which took place virtually after meetings between Macron and the leaders of the two countries. Although there is a swinging pendulum on the issue of enlargement, the main goal is still that one day these countries would join the EU.

Many people would respond, by asking when this would happen? Is it genuine that we can expect it to happen one day given the slowness of developments? Here, it is important to say that the slowness is not only because of the so-called fatigue in the European Union or the criticism from these countries but because of the slow pace of reforms in our countries, in the Western Balkans. They are not doing enough on democratic reforms, on aligning with the necessary rule of law reforms (called chapters 22 and 23). Chancellor Merkel has talked about the snail’s pace of reform, indicating there is a responsibility on both sides for the fact that these countries have advanced at a slower pace than the previous rounds of enlargement. This is significant given that there are four countries moving forward. Montenegro and Serbia are full candidates while North Macedonia and Albania are likely to join that candidate group. I think it is pertinent to the discussion we are having to mention that the countries themselves have made set up their own initiative, which is maybe wrongly called a mini-Schengen.

Restoring America’s Role

Last, short question about what to watch for looking at the region in terms of future developments – including from a Central European perspective? What sort of trends, given the circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic should we expect?

There are a lot of doom and gloom predictions saying that there would be war again. This will definitely not happen. The region did that in the 1990s and in the most terrible way with huge consequences. Things stabilised in the 2000s and there was an upswing in economic activity. With the financial and economic crisis after 2008 with Lehman Brothers and all that followed, economic progress slowed down. This has been a problem for all countries with growth of one or two per cent for some countries, maybe three or four for others, but nonetheless, it was hard for authorities to satisfy the needs of the public. We have seen authoritarian trends. We have seen governments that want to control. The media, you know, is following some models of behaviour of the Victor Orbán government in Hungary and the European Union has been openly criticising these developments.

Of course, there have been various spats and conflicts between countries on bilateral issues during the migration crisis about who was letting whom through on the Balkan route – we had a row between Serbia and Montenegro.

I think there is a moment, especially with this initiative of the regional economic cooperation promoted by the leaders of the Western Balkans themselves, that indicates that there is an awareness that everyone will fall behind when the world tackles the pandemic in the nearby future and begins to come out of it.

Some analysts have predicted a possibility for the Balkans to become part of some global supply chains. Obviously not in any big manner, but significant for the small economies of this small region. Just to remind everyone, we are talking about a region of the Western Balkans, which is about 18 million people and six countries.

I think that having partners from EU member states to support the Western Balkan countries and play the role of mentors is very important. Clearly, Germany and France are very important. But I think the role of Poland or the Czech Republic or Slovakia have been important and not so much heralded. More of that would be most welcome.